The day trip to the Wirral, to the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead and the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight was voted another success, a visit to two very different galleries.
The Williamson Art Gallery – like many others – is showing the effects of changed financial circumstances, in contrast to the era when it was built. The information on their website was out-of-date and we arrived to find things we were expecting to see not there at all, and despite some wonderful art in many forms, presentation contrasting with what we then saw at the Lady Lever, where galleries reopened only 4 years ago after a £2.8m major re-development, removing decades of building ‘improvements’ and returning them to the original architectural style of 1922. When we visit galleries and exhibitions, our attention goes first to the art we’re there to see, but the contrasting 21st century situations of these two galleries highlights what goes on behind the scenes to make the art available for us to even look at.
The day gave something for everyone, with plenty of contrasts. At the Lady Lever there was the wonderful late Turner, portraits by Reynolds, Pre-Raphaelite paintings by all the big names and then the work made by Matisse in the later stage of his life. At the Williamson, a project developed out of a chance discovery of an old collection of family photos contrasted with the contemporary portrait photography of the women working at the city’s Cammell Laird shipyard. There was the contrast of a very large collection of Wedgewood plus Chinese ceramics at the Lady Lever with the Arts and Crafts ceramics from Birkenhead’s Della Robbia factory.
Both galleries were established by people who believed that making art available for their local community to see was so important that they made major investments into it. The Lever brothers’ 19th century soap business and the development of Port Sunlight – including the art gallery – was part of that. In Birkenhead, the Williamson Art Gallery is named after one of the directors of Cunard, John Williamson. A legacy from him and his son funded its building, which opened in 1928 (six years after the Lady Lever opened). Birkenhead Council had already built up an art collection, believing in the need for this for their city. The number of people wanting to visit art galleries – including us – has grown and grown. A century ago, these key individuals, influencers in their own time, supported a trend still growing and which we are part of.
The great variety of photos captured by Mike White, Anne Linton and Jennifer Wallace, of which the above are just a sample (thank you all!), show the spirit of our day and how much we enjoyed it. We are also especially grateful to Jennifer and Jillian Wallace for organising the day for us, and to Jennifer for putting together the text of this report.